Minimal Materialism Is Still Materialism

I watched a short documentary on Netflix the other day called Minimalism. Essentially it’s a promo piece for a couple of young men who started a website and are trying to start a movement against consumerism. Both had terrible childhoods wrecked by substance abuse, among other things; both threw themselves into careers and consumption, promotions and paychecks, then realized that their lives were basically unhappy, unfulfilling, unlived. Both decided to substantially downsize and simplify, and both seem happier for it.

This topic resonates with me in a number of ways these days, and these two men are not wrong in the observation that money and consumer goods cannot make us happy. They are also not wrong that detaching from stuff and status can improve our happiness. But right off the bat I found myself struggling to buy into their message, for two main reasons.

First, the film features a number of people, young and old, who sincerely believe that less is more, and that conspicuous consumption leads to unhappiness and unhealthiness—but not one of them acknowledges that this is an age-old and primarily spiritual problem. The film highlights biology and anthropology: scientists talk about how we’re likely evolved to consume and stockpile from earlier times when food and material goods were scarce. It highlights psychology and sociology: experts decry the incessant marketing of gadgets and fashion to adults,  junk food and worthless toys to children. But no one acknowledges that philosophers and theologians have told us for centuries that such things cannot buy us happiness or a piece of Heaven.

These people speak of a restlessness and longing that isn’t satisfied by work and consumerism, but apparently have not heard St. Augustine’s words: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Indeed, the Minimalists’ mantra, “Love people, use things,” seems to be a simplification of a somewhat longer quote generally attributed to Venerable Fulton Sheen—“You must remember to love people and use things, rather than to love things and use people.” But you will hear no mention of the late archbishop’s wisdom or that of the Church in the words of those interviewed for the film.

The closest anyone comes  to mentioning faith or spirituality is a television news reporter who gave up his workaholic ways and took up meditation because it makes him “about 10 percent happier.”

They seem to understand just enough about the problem to improve their situation, but do not seem to realize that it is not a new problem nor does it lack a solution. They seem not to realize that loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself have been well articulated and proven countless times over the last two millennia at least.

Second, it seems to me that their brand of minimalism is still primarily material and isn’t really all that minimal.  It’s not about making due as much as having exactly what you need to do what you want—no more, but no less either. These are beautiful people, well dressed, with cool hats and funky glasses, Mac laptops and fitted tees. One young man owns just 50 or so items and travels the world, blogging and (apparently) being photographed—at first he calls himself homeless, then adjusts to “home-ful,” because he rents a place wherever he chooses to live in the world.

A number of those interviewed talk about how much less they have in their closets, but how it’s okay because everything that’s left is awesome! These are, apparently, people of some means, who can afford to buy what they need when they need it, and do so as long as it “adds value to their life.” Maybe they get rid of an item as a new one comes in, just to maintain the balance.

It’s a step, for sure, but isn’t it still about stuff? Not more stuff, but the right stuff. It appears that they are trading one form of consumption for another: instead of quantity, the emphasis is quality. I don’t need all of that; I need just exactly this.

I seems to me that authentic minimalism is detachment.  An anchor can only drag us down if we are tied to it. We must always be mindful that we leave the world as naked as we entered, so that whatever we possess has no grip on us. The minimalists are on the right track—but until they realize that their hearts’ desire is not actually less, but Infinitely More (i.e. God), they will never make enough room in to let Him in. It’s the size and contents of ours hearts, not our homes, that most needs to change.

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